Apocalyptic Dimensions in Works by Young-Jae Lee

Question: Why does the bread here shine?
Joseph Beuys:
Yes, it is, to put it in a nutshell,
a direct indication of the spirituality of matter,
The bread, that is, a substance,
which constitutes the most elementary substance
of human nourishment,
bears the meaning in the phrase "shining bread"
that it originates from the spiritual,
that man, thus, does not live by bread alone,
but from the spirit;
actually in the same way
as transubstantiation,
the transformation of the host in ancient Church tradition.
It is stated there:
This only seems to be bread on the outside,
but in reality it is Christ,
i.e. the transubstantiation of matter.
Such things also play
a role with the felt and fat.[i]

 

In the beginning: The Shine

Once, when Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was asked about the various meanings in his art, he distinguished between two levels, a real and a symbolic one. As a matter of fact, they lie on top of each other; the one is dominated by everyday materials, the other one, leading us to the realm of the spiritual, we may only experience by looking intensely. For Beuys, everything that is real has a correlation, which always needs to be considered as well: it is real space with a "super-space," real time with a "super-time." Consequently, each substance has a referential character. But this has been lost to man, who has undergone a technical and scientific development. He has lost his feeling for these basic spiritual powers in the world. Almost demonstratively, Beuys explains this connection by pointing out the religious level of meaning in the process of a theological transformation of one of his works, the multiple Zwei Fräulein mit leuchtendem Brot (Two Girls with Shining Bread, 1966)

  

On the Way to the End of Time

The first six bowls

I - creating            01.11 . . .

With works by the ceramicist and artist Young-Jae Lee, a distinction must also be made between different levels of meaning. A remarkable dialectic comes about from its being firmly rooted in the tradition of her homeland. The great success, the ongoing positive response she attains internationally in the west with her works, may lie exactly in the fact of this spirituality, which connects Asian with Western thought. This is a goal she shares with Joseph Beuys, although she approaches it from a different direction. Precisely the impressive exhibition in the open trough of Henrichenburg Shiplift, built in 1899 at the periphery of the Ruhr Area, makes this clear. Lee's works, too, have different levels of meaning. The viewer must wander between both, he must move up and down.

The reason for being deeply rooted in the tradition of Korean earthenware vessels goes back to a historical catastrophe. Japanese invaders stamped out a once flourishing and highly sophisticated art form here. In doing this, they brutally destroyed a rich ceramic heritage, deporting or murdering the potters, and leaving behind nothing but a sea of shards and scorched earth. A renewal - even if it was only intended for everyday use - was now only possible by returning to the beginnings of this craft. From now on, it was no longer about inventing new forms, but about the potter's true cultivation of a canon of previously developed forms and about simple, personal interpretation. This certainly helped to build up a new inner attitude, to find stability and courage - and to develop the ability to express one's own ideas, oneself, and one's cultural home solely within the framework of this ancient, trans-cultural tradition.

Such products stem from simple procedures: With the fingers, a vessel is pressed from a lump of clay, shaped, and built up upon a constantly turning wheel. In these movements, the form comes about by stretching and widening, hollowing, and removing. Doing this is the classic way of opening up hollow spaces with clay. The vessels reveal minimal variations. And yet, as the result of being handcrafted, each one always possesses a unique quality, though it assumes its individuality from its intended use and from our reflection upon it. If we wish to think about it, we must understand it from the inside and look at it from the outside.

The practical way to these vessels is always the same. They are fashioned from the same sort of action each time, from sheer endless rotations, with concentration and imagination, from meditation on, and thoughts of, their daily use. In Korea, thus, it is ultimately never about the modern ambition of inventing new forms. The goal is not the individual work, but the attitude, the almost spiritually rooted loyalty to tradition. This is Young-Jae Lee's concern. This is what she is committed to as a representative of an ancient craft as well as a modern artist.

 

II - holding            02.27 . . .

If we desire to raise the reflection of these vessels to a higher level, then we do well to note the path-breaking words of the East Asian specialist Gisela Jahn. An intimate connoisseur of Young-Jae Lee's work, she writes, "The limitation to the simplest formal means and the idea of working conceptually imbue her works with self-evidence and distance them from an emphasis on technical prowess." Lee is concerned "with the continuity of a form in its variability ( . . .) They are, and always remain, simple and clear, and precisely for this reason, they possess the character of being something special and foreign."[ii] Her repertory of forms, thusly limited, stands in connection with two basic geometric forms, the sphere and the cylinder. Resulting from them are references to other mathematical variations, such as the cube, the cone, and the ellipse. Each vessel varies the two basic forms in its own way, having been born of their formal spirit. Both of these ideal forms constitute the core of all of these stringent forms, be it a basin or a bowl, jug or cup, vase or platter. Since the pottery-making action brings them down from the imagined notion, it varies the general ideal into something uniquely concrete with respect to form, color and glaze. Added to this are inspirations from other areas such as philosophy, mysticism and modern art. The limited repertory of forms of the sphere and cylinder, coupled with uniformity in color and glaze, all of this is owing to these inspirations from other areas,[iii] and not lastly the result of strict ethics, devotion and consistent commitment. It is in this tension that their aesthetic originality lies rooted.

Looking more closely - so to speak, from a loftier standpoint - a vessel is the thing that holds something that otherwise has no firm shape. This includes fluids or grains, but also what is spiritually vague and incomprehensible. All of this the vessel determines in its interior, enclosing it from the outside, giving it stability and form. In this respect, the vessel is existential in character. Thus, it is no coincidence that some details reveal parallels to the human figure. In modern formal analysis, we refer to the foot, belly, shoulder and neck, thus to a certain extent imbuing a vessel with personal traits. Therefore, in cult use, it may actually only be carried by a single person. The contents and the moods of the One flow into the Other. As a sacred vessel, in its emptiness, it receives a mysterious secret, which it keeps for a certain period of time, and then imparts to the person carrying it.

In German, the word for vessel Gefäß comes from the verb fassen and means something akin to grasp, catch, enclose, pack together, charge, clothe and also to adorn. In Old English, the word fassen also means to bring home, in Old Icelandic it means to meet a gaze; all of these terms having a common source then leads us to the imperative form Fass! This demand means to place something in a vessel, to couch something, to put something in written form, to deal with something. If we go back even further, to the Latin or Greek, for example, then the Latin word contineo functions rather tangibly as holding together, enclosing and encompassing but also holding fast, moderating, and preventing; the Greek word skeuos in turn initially emphasizes the equipment-like nature of the vessel; in a metaphorical sense, it then designates the image for body and soul. In the Bible, the five Books of Moses, the Torah, are designated as a precious vessel, but also man views himself here as a vessel created by God.

Taking into consideration these relationships, the vessel is also there to hold philosophical notions, the questions concerning existence and meaning, the questions of life and freedom, of artistic form, theatrical play, the literary word or musical sound. In the vessel, which man treats almost like a partner, he keeps his thoughts, his memories and dreams. Thus, these vessels are particularly filled when they are empty. Virtually on their own accord, they then assume their essence and use from the moods of the person gazing at them, incorporating them and transforming the memories of what has been placed in them, though they may also release them again later. Precisely due to this fact, they are as alive as our very breath.

 

III - measuring             21.15 . . .

Movement and time stand at the very beginning of these works, which stem from simple, handcraft actions and yet instantly mutate into the highest sense of art. They stand in a field of tension between two levels, that of everyday use and that of artistic reflection and meaning. Ultimately this is never resolved, nor is it ever canceled out. This may open up a reference on a further level, to the old stories and sacred writings from myth and religion, for example, from the Bible. At the very moment, namely, when the God of the Bible commenced with Creation "In the beginning", he divided into the "heaven" and the "earth." He imparted this, and divided up, in word and rhythm.

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." - thus begins the ancient Biblical story in the first verse of the first chapter of the first Book. A notion comes to mind of something that had been before this, above all, the desert wasteland. At the same time, the void and the darkness are presupposed; water, too, the sea of chaos belongs to what was before, and the Spirit. "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." But no mention is made of time. Not yet. To the Spirit belongs the power of the word, the power to awaken und to bring about. But with the first "word", God opens up the course of time. He begins to speak by evoking light from the darkness and void and water and desert. Time comes into the world along with light, with the differentiation between light and darkness. And thus, time received its pulse and rhythm. It began to pulsate, as it were, ever different, in perpetual change, in day and night, on six days and a day of rest, and entered their lives, first in seven days and then extending to man's subjectively felt phases of time and their sheer eternal repetitions.

And thus God begins His Work with processes of separation, with filling and clearing. He fills the voids and lightens the darkness, separates the land from the water, initiates the growing and flourishing of the vegetation, the trees and the plants, the cosmic heavens and the earth, the living creatures on the land, in the air and in the water, and added to this, the processes of becoming and proliferating. Finally God creates man, and gives rest a space of its own by allowing intermediate phases and fade-outs, changes and fresh starts.

The second report of Creation in the Book of Beginnings, the Genesis, enlarges upon the phase of the creation of man "(. . . ) in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2. 4-7) At the end of this passage, there is another force, creative man. Further development is placed in his hands.

Man "In the beginning," like everything else, was formed of a material substance, from earth and clay. He arises from this; he remains rooted in its gravity, but his power of innovation raises him above everything else. He develops into an inventor and designer, even into a creator of the second degree. This quality is reflected in his early activities, in his search for food and in hunting, but also in creating with clay, in pottery making. It is a first form of all his later creating, and thus, so to speak, it stands prior to all of his other actions of differentiation and expansion. Hence, from his first formation of things into objects, man very soon envelops hollow spaces, which is to say, makes vessels. In doing so, he separates the inside from the outside. And thus, the delimited spaces open up. He encompasses them practically, broadens them and as a consequence, defines all of the expanses of space conceptually by intentionally opening them. This experiment reveals the world to him as an unfinished whole, before the backdrop of the infinity of the cosmos.

Man is simply not only the being who must plow the field. Granted, he owes many practical inventions to this. But only now does he tread the path to getting to know himself and the world. As a potter, he gathers primal-experiences. The production of clay vessels leads him to experiences that help him to deal with heat and to develop kilns that will later lead to the establishment of entire workshops. To this extent, creative action of the second degree begins here with the creative working on clay vessels, and gradually, their rational development.

"Adam" as the first man receives his body from his Creator. He is a hollow sculpture, sort of a jug of life. His life is a continens of a special type. Human life in the body is like a being filled with sublime nature. The Biblical image for this is the Divine breath that breathes life into what was formerly a figure of clay. Thus, man is a vessel, which only awakens with this breath to his destiny as being "in God's own image." The further development of the world is placed in his hands. And thus, he places it into creative motion, in harmony with time. Pottery making exemplifies this with its wheel turning in quick rhythm and the craftsmanship shown in the way a lump of clay rises, seemingly on its own, into the form of a vessel. Man creates spaces that are in keeping with his nature.

He creates or discovers them. Over and over again. He suffuses the vessels with all of his inner inklings and feelings. At the same time he transforms the measured physical space into an artistic, ideal space, to an inner space, the epitome of will or desire, appeal or love, vision or image. Here, man circles around his own open center, from which all vessels are created. Its power of effect can be awakened atmospherically and transposed to other spaces. For in them, paradoxically, is reflected the endlessness of space, and all open possibilities, up to the way man deals with himself and his freedom. One of the most interesting creators of artistic spaces is the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002). To the question concerning what space meant for him, he responded: 

I might compare it to the breath
that makes the form swell
and shrink again,
opening up in it a space of vision
inaccessible and hidden to the outside world. ( . . .)
We must be able to feel this space as well
as the form, in which it becomes manifest.
It has certain expressive characteristics.
It places the matter surrounding it
into motion, determining its proportions,
scanning and structuring its rhythms.
It must find its correspondences in us,
resonate within us,
it must possess a kind of spiritual dimension.[iv]

Consequently, pottery making is a fundamental, even categorically initial, activity for man. Here is where history and the development of all culture begin, and this not only in a technical, but also in an existential and artistic sense. It is in the framework of this practical action where man delineates his creative possibilities, but it is also here that he notices his first limits. Creating pottery vessels at his wheel not only leads him to higher aesthetic forms, but also easily to failure, and shards. It is neutralized by motion and time.

IV - counting                        08.09 . . .

Young-Jae Lee's work is very closely related to motion and thus, to time as well. All pottery making stems from revolving around a point, countless revolutions, unbelievably calming, at first glance from the outside all but tediously repetitious, and at second glance, like delving into another world where all intellectual spirits seem to meet. The passage of time runs parallel to the creating of the work. Both, as it were, delve into time.

The notion of time designates the form of changes or the sequence of events as perceived by the human consciousness. For Aristotle, the concept of time was inevitably linked with changes. These take place in time. Time is not itself a movement, but rather the measurement by which changes are understood. St. Augustine views time as the driving force of memory, which constitutes our ability for making us conscious of time and to live with awareness. For him, remembrance, which brings knowledge to our inner selves, serves to make the past present. In addition, he distinguishes between a physically exact time, determined with the aid of instruments that measure time, and a psychological time, based on experience, which finds access to subjective and everyday interpretations.

V - seven            01.04 . . .

Everything receives its form; everything unfolds in seven phases, in the process of Biblical Creation that took 7 days. The fact that this concrete beginning of the story of the world's origin is connected with the number seven has many reasons - mythological, practical, and random ones. The number seven has a complex internal structure. Additively, it consists of the three and the four, but compositionally in the art of the triptych or the polytych, it also also consists of the two and the one, the wings and the middle. All numbers may be placed in a relationship with one another - in coexistence or next to one another. With a view to art, the four may be singled out as the middle, flanked to the left by one to three and to the right by five and six. In music, the sequence of ascending notes is structured like this; in sacred architecture, for example, in the Gothic chapels radiating from the apse, it works in much the same way.

In many ancient cultures, in myth and religion, this number is a fundamental principle, which provides the framework for a complex and process-oriented narration of the origin of the world. In this, the word describing the origin of all things, the development into a universe, becomes a basic harmony common to all things. At the same time, the harmony is the basic universal principle of proportion in the arts, of rhythm in music and poetry.

The seven is a natural, odd, prime number. It is framed by the even numbers of six and eight. These are variations of the first multiplications of two and three. Such multiplications help to develop principles of order for understanding the world. Counting, grouping, and structuring give order to knowledge and organize thought. It allows us to design houses and compose their structures. In such groupings, man reflects upon and understands his world and the way it is set up, its becoming and passing, the crystalline and the biomorphic - theoretically, practically, and artistically.

People like to interpret the number seven as the number that stands for the universe - cosmologically, and planetarily. It then assumes a tendency to the whole. This number has an inherent possibility that allows us to understand the inner structure of a wholeness. From here, it is not far then to comprehending the diversity of the number seven symbolically, bringing it into an indivisible wholeness. It was very popular in medieval Christianity, which tended to be didactically oriented. It structures a thought to the inside and places it into relationships to its surroundings. It serves as an abstract image for structuring something and grasping it in details.  At the same time, it summarizes. In art, it serves as a method of dividing up and making something dynamic. It is the dividing principle used for many paintings, remaining clear, and unfolding what is serial in a narration. It is a moving dialectics.

If the original function of the vessel was to store things, then it is its purpose to preserve our notions and our questions concerning existence and meaning, the questions of life and freedom, of artistic form and musical sound. The artist who creates the vessel, like the man who lives with it, stores his thoughts and questions inside.

 

VI - pouring out                        16.01 . . .

For Young-Jae Lee, it is the bowl that serves her as the form for the great questions of time and history, especially its beginnings, its classifications, and its end. This vessel form is open and wide. It broadens to become a bowl. This form has two different forerunners: with respect to the material, it is the moist earth, and in terms of the form, it is like a skull cleaved in half. This probably served as a drinking vessel in ancient times. The first ones were most likely made from the severed skulls of the enemy dead.

The bowl, together with the basin and platter, belong to the genre of the vessels that have been opened widely. All three forms have in common that they open up or widen at one end. The bowl has its flat belly containing the hollow space in common with the basin; compared with the more horizontal platter, its form displays a restrained upward thrust; its essence is expressed in both. Bowls strive upwards. They literally make a gesture of proffering their contents heavenwards, even if the inside is empty. These flat vessels therefore, in addition to their use, also have an aesthetic, communicative, even sacred character. In the midst of their explicit horizontality, the vertical opens up.

The vessels in general, and the bowls in particular, have been released from the confines of their mere utilitarian function. They possess an autonomous character, and thus, become artistic objects. Formally, the bowl derives from the strictly geometric basic shape of a semi-sphere, constantly paraphrasing it and being creatively transformed and individualized. As an everyday object, and sometimes, as a precious container, it holds the welcoming drink for the guest, stores precious ingredients, or else it becomes a mystery, empty as it mostly is, concerning the further possibilities for what it might be filled with. This also includes symbolic actions. Thus, in the ancient Bible, from the very beginning, they are counted among the liturgical vessels. Depending upon their use, they have different names. For example, there is a well-known bowl that is symbolically filled with blood for painting the doorposts, for preparing the Flight from Egypt (Exodus 12.22). A different cruse - a sallahat - serves the Prophet Elisha. He instructs that it be filled with salt. He pours this in the water of a spring in order to heal the waters again, stating "There shall not be from thence any more death or barren land." (II Kings. 2.20-22)

Such bowls stand on a flat foot and widen out horizontally. These are taken in both hands, and emptied with slow deliberation. Being objects of a special nature, they fall into that interim area between handcraft and art. They are suited for daily use, but also for the special uses in religion and private decoration. First, they stand around in stacked order, waiting to be used in a concrete space and context. Themselves disposing over their own interior space, they then enter into a special union with their surrounding space.

The potter's wheel has maintained itself through all times and cultures as the stationary middle of the ever-turning mass of clay on its way to becoming a vessel. The bowls, as it were, arose from this process, always the same, always different. It is here that the deep and inspiring secret of this millenia-old technique lies embedded, constantly searching for the special amongst the myriad, for something that remains even as it moves, for something creatively bubbling that is bound by mysticism.

Seven Bowls (2012) was created by the artist for the Mediations Biennale in Poznan. This exhibition, shown from 14 September to 14 October 2012, was organized by over one hundred artists in museums and Houses of God throughout this Polish city. Among the locations was the Old Synagogue - built before World War I, desecrated by the Nazis and converted into a swimming pool for officers before becoming a public bath under the Communists. Now it was to be converted into a luxury hotel with a wellness center. The Biennale artists spoke out in protest against this. Showing contemporary art from Asia, Europe, and America, they concentrated on The Unknown, on time and on what goes beyond it. Thus, for artists and curators, art became the bearer of an alternative perspective, for a new future, not only in Europe.

The Apocalyptic vision of the Seven Bowls was Young-Jae Lee's contribution to this theme. Her concern was with time and the future, with the perspectives of declining and rising. She wanted to understand her present day before the backdrop of the vision of the end of all time. What the Greeks had formerly sought to grasp via cycles is what the Christian Bible turned into the vision of a Second Coming of the Resurrected Christ. The last book in the Bible deals with salvation and judgment on the course and the evil of time. The world and its history are reflected upon from the perspective of its imagined end, because in the Biblical view, it races towards its end in fearful circles and catastrophic spurts. Causing duress, this movement is expressed in terms of the number seven. The end comes quickly in seven destructive turns. As once God in the beginning determined the measurement of times and limits, the time now breaks forth in this same rhythmic image. What once came about on seven days of creation - light and earth, water and growth, man and animal, all of life - now perishes, not in a straight line, but in seven cycles.

The seven bowls illustrate the way the end comes. In Egypt already there were the precursors with the ten plagues; there were the images of the poisoned water of the Nile, the frogs on the land, the gnats and gadflies in the air, pestilence and smallpox on the skin, hail and locusts in the air, the killing darkness of all life. Now everything turns backwards again. In ever newly filled rows of seven, the catastrophes announce themselves, in the messages to the seven churches, in the seven seals that are opened, in the seven trumpets. The seven bowls complete the ultimate doom, everything that had been proclaimed over and over again beforehand with warning and imploring words.

An angel pours the deathly substance of the first bowl "upon the earth" - and vile sores befall those who bear "the mark of the beast." Another angel pours the second bowl "upon the sea", turning the water into the blood of death, in which all life dies. The third bowl of the third angel infects the earth's "rivers and fountains of waters" in the same way. The fourth bowl is poured "upon the sun," scorching the impenitence of mankind with fire. Another messenger pours out the fifth bowl "upon the seat of the beast," against the Roman Empire, against all blindness and spiritual darkness. Another angel pours out the sixth bowl "upon the great river Euphrates." It dries up and no longer keeps the enemy from invading and occupying. Now all of the powers from the east invade, and there are frogs as the symbol of evil. And then the seventh angel pours out the seventh bowl "into the air" and all atmospheres. At the same time, it unleashes the great end, everything now comes at once: quakes, lightning, noise, thunder, earthquakes, hail, collapse.

The entire drama of this oriental scenario unfolds. But now a different image breaks through once again, that of Christian hope. The Creator of the world sends His messenger. Christ comes again and in the midst of the downfall, He saves His own, the faithful. At the end, a Christian perspective of hope thrusts itself upon the darkness of the decay. The images of the bowls fade out in the light of the rising sun, which is Christ the Savior.

 

The End of Time

The Seventh Bowl

 

VII - gazing             21.01 . . .

The leap to the number seven comes like an explosion in terms of form and content. All of the dimensions are exceeded, the bowl becomes the trough, the vessel becomes the sea. But the events do not leap back to a yet greater, final catastrophe, as they do with the seventh seal (Apc. 8. 1-5), but rather to an overwhelming new birth of the cosmos. The end turns into a new beginning. Yet again the number seven stands central as a dramatic impulse, in terms of apocalyptic methods as well as symbols. It dissolves in the vision of the eight of eternal light:

Seven is the perfect number,
which in six days of the creation that came about,
is made holy as the day of God's rest:
the seven of this day of rest
is continued into eternity
and becomes the eight of the eternal light
of undiminished peace.[v]

Let us first return to the framework context of these lines, however, to the first six bowls, or vials, of the apocalypse. Without entering into details concerning the construction and content of this Biblical Book,[vi] we would like to point out the connection to the sixth trumpet.

Subsequent to the end of the inhuman and destructive kingdoms on earth, an interim period sets in, when a Last Judgment pronounces its sentence on the realm of Satan. At the same time, Christians are promised "a new heaven and a new earth" (Apc. 20.11-15), described in a moving account (Apc. 21 f.). St. John the Divine sees this new world in a promising vision with overwhelming images, as a vision of salvation and change of everything that had been before. First this vision transforms into the image of a bride, who has adorned herself for the wedding with her groom, and at the same time it turns into another image, that of the heavenly city. This city is God's dwelling place, a happy place for man (Apc. 21.1-7). It is also Paradise, which has returned to man, the New Jerusalem, "And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it;" (Apc. 21.24).

Now the Apocalypse has reached its inherent goal. In the midst of the fears of the downfall and experiences of death, this Mystery of the Apocalypse is proclaimed to the believers. It is here that the consolation of the sermon of Jesus is summarized in image and symbol. It is the treasure of an inherent knowledge, alive in the inner dialogues for consolation and hope, made possible by faith.

The model for this vision lies in the prophetically awakened hope of the People of Israel, in the hoped-for coming of God's kingdom (Ezekiel 40-48). In this image, the city gleams and glows, sparking astonishment and joyous feelings. There are wonderful colors, shining reflections, sparkling gemstones. Added to this are the confidence-inspiring names of the tribes of God's people plus the familiar names of the Twelve Apostles. Here then is the new homeland. New water flows, here is life and eternity, and God dwells among men (Apc. 21.3).

At this point, Young-Jae Lee's interest in the apocalyptic world reaches a new intensity since the levels of word and image in the Bible are lifted to music: The penetrating experience of the brilliant performance of a popular work of modern music has guided her to a different, more moving, way of inspiration. The piece that opened up this new approach for her is called Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). The composer wrote it in 1940/41 while interned by the German Wehrmacht in a prisoner-of-war camp at StaLag VIIIa in Görlitz. In this piece, he worked through horrible experiences of war. But it became a lifting creation for him. Granted, the work departed from imprisonment and humiliation; for his art and personal belief, however, it became a positive, sweeping transformation that also paved the way for other people. Like a psalmist, in the midst of hardship, he was afforded the premonition of peace, reconciliation and tranquility. Under these conditions, he composed his overwhelmingly moving Quartet for the End of Time. For Young-Jae Lee it has become the music of the seventh trumpet.

It was in consolation, not in the catastrophes of ideologies, hostility and war that Messaien received his secret inspiration. For him, it became the inner goal of human life. In this composition, he grasped the power of Biblical metaphors in words and translated them into musical visualizations. Instead of dwelling on the horrendous visions of that Biblical Book, at the moment of his greatest loss of personal security, - musician Thomas Daniel Schlee writes - Messiaen "turned to the promises of peace, consolation, beauty, and glory. The End of Time and the colors of the Heavenly Jerusalem were mighty sources of inspiration for the composer."[vii]

But even here, at the beginning there is horror. Messiaen reports: "In the camp, we were forced to strip down. I stood there, completely naked, with my little satchel for my music. A soldier with a machine gun wanted to take away my music, but I glared at him so grimly that he got scared. As naked as I was, I was still stronger, and held on to my music ( . . .). Something remarkable happened to me there: A German officer, who did not belong to the StaLag, actually he was a lawyer, (. . .) this German officer, Mr. Brüll, surreptitiously slipped bread to me a couple of times. He knew that I was a composer and brought me music staff paper, a pencil and an eraser. Now I was able to work. (. . .) And astonishing again: Suddenly the Germans, who had, incidentally, always treated me blamelessly, placed a piano at my disposal, a tinny old piano, and the three excellent musicians among us prisoners and I set about to perform my quartet for the first time."[viii] The titles for the individual movements of the Quartet for the End of Time give a synaesthetic notion of what condenses here almost naturally to become the prevailing atmosphere in image, tone, and faith, in seven movements and an interlude.

Liturgy of crystal
Vocalise, for the Angel
who announces the end of Time.
Abyss of the birds
Interlude
Praise to the Eternity of Jesus
Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets
A mingling of rainbows for the Angel
who announces the end of Time
Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.

 This music received its own translation into a word consisting of seven images by Messiaen, stimulating our fantasy and understanding. For him, the Quartet for the End of Time is

a music,
that cradles us and sings,
one that is new blood, a speaking gesture,
an unknown fragrance,
a sleepless bird;
a music of the colorful church windows,
a mingling of complementary colors,
a theological rainbow.[ix]

The unusual combination of instruments for the piece's eight movements resulted from the fact that four good musicians were also prisoners in the camp: the clarinetist Henri Akoka, violinist Jean Le Boulaire and the cellist Ètienne Pasquier. The composer himself took over the piano part. The premiere took place on 15 January 1941, in the bitter cold at the Görlitz prisoner-of-war camp. 400 inmates attended.

The title and movements 2, 6, and 7 of the work refer to the text passage from the Apocalypse 10.1-7: "And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth, And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices. And then the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not, And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, And sware by him that liveth for ever an ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets."

As mentioned earlier, the experience of this musical creation deeply moved Young-Jae Lee and proved to be of lasting importance for her. It inspired her to a great creation of her own, giving her the freedom to transpose the quantitative nature of this number to a different level. She understood this piece to be a breakthrough into wholly new dimensions, as the end of the past, as a leap to the new. Doubly motivated, by the age-old Bible and the new music, she raised the meaning of the seven, after having gone through the previous six, to become the symbol of a new birth, precisely the one that the Mystery of the Apocalypse deals with and that Messiaen touches in his music, as the End of Time, as the beginning of an eternity. For her, it meant the launch into the infinite.

For such a radical interpretation, however, the repertory of her forms no longer sufficed. This was strictly bound to convenient everyday characteristics, oriented to a personal, social, and symbolic use. But now she desired to go beyond this perspective. Yet she remained true to herself in her work. As she has done before, she introduced an old form into her creative design, the flat bowl. Whereas her previous work was predominantly oriented to the sphere and the cylinder, and thus to an enclosed notion of space, this bowl was meant to be open and wide, its form being continued in her imagination to a huge sphere, or better, an ellipse, rising above it. It was open to the top, to the infinite. And thus, also on the symbolical level, the concentration on the private and existential aspects had been overcome, according to the concept. The flat bowl was open to the top, receptive to dealing with cosmic and eschatological premonitions and questions. But how would this look concretely in its implementation?

In terms of its classical form, the flat bowl belonged to the genres of ceramics. In Lee's oeuvre, it was present on the level of dishes, specifically as a plate or saucer, though not at all in her artistically free works. But then an idea turned into an impulse. An unexpected invitation arrived from Arnulf Siebeneicker, the director of the gigantic Henrichenburg Shiplift, today a much-frequented and admired industrial monument from the end of the 19th century. In the large trough the barges once entered in order to reach a different water level, i.e., in a Giant Vessel, she was now supposed to display her ceramics art under an open sky. This became a great challenge for her. These small containers were supposed to find a place in the gigantic trough?

In order to be able to meet this challenge, the artist now seriously conceived a new group of works, namely the large flat bowls. How would she supplement the impressive world of modern industry with an even more impressive world of art? She determined the dimensions that her vessels could assume, departing from the greatest circumference of the bowls that she would still be able to make by using her same methods and exerting the utmost effort on her hands and arms. This meant a circumference of ca. 55 cm, with a height of around 15 to 20 cm. According to her notions, these were flat, expansive ellipsoid segments, i.e. sections at the base, which rise to gigantic proportions. Therefore, they also have to stand on broad "feet", that is to say,  on rings, in order to assume a firm stance. Symbolically, because of the openness inherent to this geometric form, it is possible to construe a reference to the cosmic and utterly endless notion of time. But how could such a small flat vessel ultimately hold its own against this iron Goliath? With the symbolic multiplication and addition of the seven and twelve as well as the one, being the number that in a metaphorical sense holds everything that is, and that endures, in a single one, and is thus perhaps even a symbolic multiplication of one?

For an artist, who has been creating a large oeuvre of ceramics for nearly forty years, applying strict discipline and consistency, this was no easy task. It is not difficult to forge concepts in your head, but just as quickly the practical problems of ceramics catch up with you - the weight, firing, and glaze. And thus, in the beginning rather a lot of fired clay got broken. Sometimes the vessel walls were too thick, other times the glazes didn't turn out. Not everything that man thinks up may be precisely implemented. It is just not possible to invent nature. Her laws must be respected. And then, on top of the technical problems came the problems of contents and aesthetics. Moreover, the thought of an exhibition - and hence, issues concerning the scope, relation, ordering, and symbolism - also posed challenges that would have to be addressed. This project was not merely about making beautiful bowls, but dealt with powerful thoughts concerning the world and its duration. The ideas grew ever larger, the vessel became a basin, even a sea, the bowl became a trough and a ship, even an airship (lest we forget that the English word vessel refers to both a container as well as a ship. The construction of such notions became a balancing act that can only be accomplished by someone who dares to venture it. Now, many of these large flat bowls were made in swift sequence. Seven of them were displayed at the Mediations Biennale in Poznan, but the entire meaning of this new group of works may only be grasped in the special conditions posed in the trough of the shiplift. This proved to be a great success for Young-Jae Lee.

Over and over again, man loses the wholeness of the world in which he lives; it slips out of his control. It constitutes a great effort for him, namely, to launch developments that will improve the world and then to keep them going. This does not come naturally to him. He must gather all his strength and be prepared to rise above himself. And this is not child's play; it means discipline, strength of mind, and demands great sacrifice. Messiaen took recourse to the 15th of the 64 hexagrams from the Chinese I-Ching to address this deeply human experience. The "Book of Changes" urges us to work for changing what already exists:

The Law of heaven is
to spread its blessings on earth
allowing its light to shine;
the law of earth is
to carry its action from below upwards.[x]

Man can bring heaven to earth, and at the same time he must move the earth to heaven. In this sense, he must develop an evolutionary spirit, which surmounts the static nature of the present. This is his calling. Here we see how strongly Messiaen is rooted in the utopian thought of his time; the development of the cosmos stands in close unity with man's renewal. The composer is not concerned with the exploitation and conquering of outer space, but rather, above all with: 

raising man
to a superhuman level,
'to the only reality that is able to
fill and justify
the millions of years
that perhaps remain yet for the spirit
to develop on earth,'
as Teilhard de Chardin stated.
Conquering space, conquering matter,
perhaps time as well,
conquering man -
ever higher, to light and to love
to that 'Love that moves sun and stars'[xi]

 

At the End: A Mystery

Another artist, Joseph Beuys, who showed us the way at the beginning of this article already, was also occupied with these questions about the future of the world and how to shape it. He was looking for the strength that man needed in order to be able to meet the creative challenges of our time. Here, he repeatedly saw a need for expansions. In this respect, he viewed art as being faced with a great task. In order to be able to meet this challenge, art would have to be freed of its limitation on purely aesthetic aspects. Its inner concept would have to be broadened. This expansion was meant in reference to the increase in knowledge and orientation, but above all, it referred to the practice. Art needed to return to where it had once already stood, at the latest, in the High Renaissance - the artist appears as architect and designer, as scientist and philosopher, as a wise man and an alert believer. And finally, there was the concept of the "expanded notion of art." Every man is an artist, every woman is an artist. It is up to each to awaken his or her inherent sleeping energies and treat them in ways liberating to all. Only when this happens may a new world and a new time be established. What was central for him was the concept of the "presence of Christ." Man was to place himself in the figure of Christ.·[xii] To the question concerning how this might happen, how the "driving presence of Christ" might be attained in the life of the individual, he answered:

In the depths of isolation,
in the utter seclusion
from all that is spiritual,
a mystery takes place in man. ( . . . )
This time, the resurrection
must take place through man himself.
Man must, as it were,
pull himself together with his God.
He must bring about movement,
must apply effort,
to bring himself into contact with himself.
And that is the true meaning
of the word "creativity:"
Incarnation of Christ's nature
into the physical conditions of earth. ( . . . )
It is very difficult for man,
by his own efforts, to employ self-determination
in reality.
That is really difficult.
He would rather
receive what is given.
But he is not getting anything anymore.
He gets nothing, absolutely nothing from any Christ.
And yet this power presents itself
and wants to force itself into this world,
but only under the condition that man brings himself to do this on his own.[xiii]

 

The Seventh Bowl. Apocalyptic Dimensions in Works by Young-Jae Lee, in catalogue Vessels. Installations by Young-Jae Lee, in: Westphalian State Museum of Industrial Heritage, Schiffshebewerk Henrichenburg (Ed.), Waltrop, Arnulf Siebeneicker (Red.), translation by Elizabeth Volk, Essen (Klartext Verlag) 2013, annex p. 2-26. 

 

 Notes:


[i] Joseph Beuys in conversation with Jörg Schellmann and Bernd Klüser, in: Schellmann and Klüser (editors), Joseph Beuys. Multiples / Catalogue Raisonné. Multiples and Prints 1965-1980. Munich 1980, unpaginated (page 6 of the text), Translation of this passage: ev.

 

[ii] Gisela Jahn, Die Keramikerin Young-Jae Lee, in: Young-Jae Lee. Keramiken 1974-1995, (Exhibition Catalogue Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Preußischer Kulturbesitz), Berlin 1996, p. 11-39, here p. 19.

 

[iii] Ibid. p. 21.

 

[iv] Eduardo Chillida, quoted in Peter Frey, Eduardo Chillida, der nichteuklidische Bildhauer, in: Chillida. Sculptures de terre (Exhibition catalogue Galerie Maeght, Zurich), Zurich 1985, p. 9-16, here p. 13f. (Here: translation from the German: ev)

 

[v] Thomas Daniel Schlee and Dietrich Kämper (editors), Olivier Messiaen. La Cité céleste - Das himmlische Jerusalem. Über Leben und Werk des französischen Komponisten (Exhibition Catalogue Forum Guardini, Berlin), Cologne 1998, p. 220. (Here: translation from the German ev)

 

[vi] See: Friedhelm Mennekes, APOCALYPSIS. Gerhard Trieb. Dürervariationen, Cologne 2007. The numbers in the subheadings I-VII of this article also refer to passages in the Book of The Apocalypse (Revelation).

 

[vii] Olivier Messiaen, quoted in Schlee/Kämper (op. cit., see footnote 5), p. 67.

 

[viii] Ibid., p. 49.

 

[ix] Olivier Messiaen, quoted in Josef Häusler, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (accompanying booklet for the CD recording from Polydor with Luben Yordanoff, Albert Tetard, Claude Desurmont and Daniel Barenboim), Hamburg 1979, p. 4 - 7, here p. 4. (Translation from the German: ev)

 

[x] Olivier Messiaen, Eloge de Jean Lurcat, held on 15 May 1968 at the Institut de France, in: Schlee/Kämper (op. cit., footnote 5), here p. 106. (Translation from the German: ev)

 

[xi] Ibid.

 

[xii] See: Friedhelm Mennekes, Über die kosmologische Christologie in der Kunst von Joseph Beuys, in: Mennekes, Joseph Beuys: Christus DENKEN/THINKING Christ, Stuttgart 1996, p. 91-123, here p. 103ff.

 

[xiii] Joseph Beuys in conversation with Friedhelm Mennekes, in: Ibid., p. 39, 41, 43. (Translation of the passage: ev).

 

Translation: Elizabeth Volk, Sinzig, Germany

 

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